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Latest Auction Report

Spring Auction Season.

A surprising number of people seem to be buying guns unseen from provincial auctions and having them sent to me after the sale, for appraisal and storage, possible for restoration too. Most of the clients doing this are American and seem to be buying low-value lots on something like a ‘suck it and see’ basis; they seem pretty relaxed when it turns out that a gun is beyond economic repair, as they frequently are.

The auction site is making this kind of late-night speculative shopping very easy. and guns listed in far-flung provincial , non-specialist auctions are less well-hidden than they were, just a few years ago.

Southams is one provincial auctioneer doing rather well.They held another large sale in March, selling 90% of their 1250 lots. The next sale in Bedford is in June.

The other March auction was Holts, of course, with a new venue and a changed format. The room in Kensington was a good deal smaller than recent venues but well-lit and pleasant, with sufficient space to display the selection of guns and rifles for sale. The sale had a more focussed feel about it. By reducing the number of items on display, taking a proper look at everything was easier.  You have to be very disciplined not to go ‘gun blind’ when faced with hundreds of options to look through.

Happily, Holt’s have have managed to retain the permission they need from the police to display the guns with tags and a good door security policy, rather than have to remove the forends and chain the guns to racks, which is so much less convenient when trying to properly examine them. As an overall experience, I enjoyed the viewing and bought a historic Thomas Turner double 8-bore that featured in the Field Trials back in 1875, taking second place.

There is no parking at the new venue but there is a decent-sized car park in the vicinity, which is far less stressful than trying to dodge the packs of traffic wardens prowling the streets of Kensington.

The Sealed Bids sale continues to do well, despite not being displayed in London. Customers are apparently not deterred by the long drive (from most places) to the wilds of Norfolk to peruse the inventory and leave bids for the lower priced guns and ephemera. Treat it as a day out.

Whatever the reasons, times change and the big Holt’s sales of the last fifteen years may be a thing of the past. Having said that, it is entirely possible that circumstances may push some large collections back onto the market and we see a reversal of the recent decline in volume.

As a dealer, I get offered all kinds of oddities that fall way outside my usual remit of vintage sporting guns. These typically emerge from house clearances. One such item was a sectioned Luger automatic pistol, which someone found, while clearing out an old neighbour’s house after he died.

The pistol had been carefully cut to reveal the entire length of the rifling in the barrel and the feed spring in the handle. Many of the mechanical parts were still moving, so, while thoroughly put beyond use, it did not conform to the latest deactivation requirements to comply as a legally de-activated weapon. That being the case, it is illegal to sell, or offer for sale.

I wondered if an auctioneer with Section 5 authority might take it and sell it as such. It is an interesting and unusual piece. However, those I tried were not interested, finding it more trouble than it was worth. In these circumstances, dealers are advised by the police to accept such weapons, in order to remove them from the streets, and to hand them over to the authorities in a timely manner (24 hours). As the Luger was presented to me by e-mail, rather than in person, I advised the finder to take it to his nearest police station. It seems a shame that pieces of history like this are now being put through a chop saw.

Gavin Gardiner has a sale on 1st May. His catalogue, which arrived on April 10th, contains more high-condition, best pairs of guns, including pairs by Boss, Purdey and Woodward, including a very unusual pair of side-lever, round body single trigger Boss 12-bores, than I have seen for some time, along with notable single guns by Symes & Wright, Wilkes and Beesley. 

He has a good range of reasonably priced boxlocks and some rifles that are worth a look, including a T.T. Proctor .375 and a Holland & Holland double ‘Royal’ in .375 Flanged. There is also an unusually good pair of Lancaster ‘Twelve-Twenty’, Baker-action, 12-bore, side-locks, made in 1933 and stored for some years.

Regular visitors should note that Gavin now requires advance booking and a Viewing Pass must be secured before showing up at the viewing room. They can be ordered from at anytime leading up to the sale. Security at Sotheby’s is clearly getting tighter; as it has been with every other venue in recent months. 

I can’t think of a single incidence of anybody doing any damage at a London gun viewing in my lifetime but the authorities seem to make a virtue out of making it increasingly difficult and awkward to display guns for sale.

Gavin has already announced his next sale at Gleneagles, on August 26th. Before that, Bonham’s have a sale in Knightsbridge, scheduled for 31st May but, as yet, no details have been made public.

Austrian auctioneer Springer has been busy, with a March 28th sale featuring a full range of firearms from modern pistols to a single barrel pin-fire shotgun by Firmin of Paris, which was a present from Emperor Napoleon III to his only son, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who was killed, while attached to the Royal Engineers, in a skirmish, during the Zulu War of 1879.

Springer had several pairs of British shotguns, by Watson Bros, Purdey, Cogswell & Harrison and the like. Single guns by Purdey, Greener, Lancaster and Grant and plenty of continental bolt-action, single shot and double rifles, as well as various drilling configurations, which should sell better in Europe than anywhere else.

Springer’s catalogue is large format and stretches to 207 pages, with every lot well photographed and described. Springer apply a 24% (plus VAT) buyer’s premium, going up to 44% for what they call ‘fully taxed’ lots. 24% is roughly in-line with what most London auctioneers are applying to most lots. Southams remains the cheapest place to buy your guns at auction. They have not yet reached the prominence of the more established London specialists but they do appear to be growing with every sale.

With European buyers asking, with some justification, if there would be problems exporting anything they buy in London before committing to bid at Holt’s in March, the uncertainty continues and that can only be good for the European competitors to our established auctioneers. 

London has long been the hub for worldwide gun sales, with our firms bringing in guns from all over Europe, selling them in London and sending them to their new European, British or other owners. Moving firearms in and out of Europe has never been totally pain-free but the signs are that it looks unlikely to get easier. 

With another extension to the eventual plan for the UK to leave the European Union under negotiation as we go to press, our market is gripped by uncertainty.

Nearly New vs Vintage

What role does the production of new guns have in controlling the prices achieved at auction of relatively recent guns? By that, let’s consider guns made in the last ten or twenty years.

One factor affecting the market is the choice facing a buyer. Should he buy a new gun from the maker, or a ‘nearly new’ gun of similar specification from a dealer or an auction, or, indeed, from the maker?

A recent discussion with a member of Purdey’s sales staff threw-up some interesting issues. In 2010, a ‘standard’ new Purdey side-lock ejector cost £66,000. Today, it costs £141,600. I make that a rise of around 113% in just under a decade. The prices quoted include VAT.

Purdey would now sell a 2010 model in very good condition, for £80,000. They would keep their commission and return £68,000 to the vendor, who has, therefore, made a £2,000 profit on his ownership of his Purdey over the decade he has owned and used it. 

That looks pretty good, especially if you consider the typical running costs and depreciation on other luxury mechanical goods Purdey customers are likely to buy; like cars. A 2010 Range Rover, which cost £79,000 new, with a modest 50,000 miles on the clock, can be had today for £16,000.

This Rigby costs £80,000 new, where will be the best place to sell it in a decade?

But I digress. The real issue here is how the inflated prices of new guns keep secondhand values rising with them. We have seen the effect of Purdey’s steep rises and, apparently, healthy sales figures. We must add the caveat that the secondhand prices quoted are those achieved by the maker, selling the gun from a prime London location, to a wealthy customer-base in a discreet manner, with a full guarantee and after-sales service. Buying at auction is very different matter.

So, can we expect to see this inflation pattern continue? If it does, a new Purdey in 2029 will cost about £300,000. Is that sustainable inflation? It certainly does not reflect overall inflation; the price of petrol has not doubled, nor the price of a meal in a restaurant. I wonder what it is about the gun trade that justifies such inflation; especially in a field in which mechanisation has increased, and should have reduced production time and cost significantly.

In the world of luxury goods who knows? If you are getting £750,000 a week in oil revenues, perhaps it doesn’t matter what things cost and if that is Purdey’s customer base of the future, it may well carry on un-affected. 

However, in my experience, rich customers did not, generally, get rich by being slack on the financial management side of business and are not prone to deals they don’t see as good value. By comparison, a new Westley Richards ‘drop-lock’ is £59,000 plus VAT and a Rigby ‘rising bite’ shotgun is £79,000. A Boss is around £100,000, plus VAT.

Another prominent gun maker told me he would always expect to get his customers their money back on guns and rifles built within the last twenty years. The advantage to the customer of buying used guns in this way is that they side-step the four-year waiting time for delivery.

So, how do these retail prices and the dealer-sold secondhand prices line-up alongside those realised at action? Holt’s recently sold a cased 2005 Purdey 12-bore SLE for £25,000, off an estimate of £30,000 – £50,000. A 1984 model sold for £19,000. Both were immaculate and with desirable barrel and stock dimensions. Another 2005 vintage Purdey failed to make its £40,000 reserve.

Gavin Gardiner reflected on auction prices back in the 1980s, when a good vintage (say 1930s) Purdey made 80% of the price of a new one. In 2019, it may make around 10% of new cost. Gavin would expect to catalogue a ‘nearly new’ Purdey at £70,000-£90,000 today. Price tags of vintage Purdeys have not really changed in thirty years, but, back then, the figure represented a third of new cost, not 10%. Perhaps the lesson is that the London retail showroom is a better environment for the vendor of a nearly new gun, than is the auction house.

What it also highlights is the great value that minty English guns are, if you buy those from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Prices are historically low. How good does a hardly-used 1947 Purdey side-lock look, with a price tag of £25,000, when compared to the £141,000 new cost? We know it will be reliable and give decades of service, so why not? The conventional wisdom has always been ‘buy low, sell high’. That being the case, good vintage side-locks should be selling like hot cakes.

However, the other issue in a depressed market is that owners don’t want to sell. We have seen a slow-down in the volume and quality of kit coming onto the auction market in recent years, as potential vendors sat on their hands (and their guns) rather than sell collections at a loss. So, paradoxically, we have lower prices, offering great value for guns that are coming on to the market, but weaker supply, as few want to sell. Perhaps something will give.

Southams, 14th March, and the BSS

Southams have an extensive catalogue for March, which has been available on-line since the second week for February. They always seem to find large quantities of air rifles and a good smattering of rim-fire and centre-fire rifles from the 1970s up to the present day. They seem to sell a good percentage of what they offer, with a clientele hungry for the classic air rifles of my youth, like the Weihrauch HW35, BSA Airsporter and Feinwerkbau Sport. A budget of £200 should get you a nice example.

I ran into Nigel Croskill at the British Shooting Show. He had with him some entries for the March sale, including a very rare hammer ejector by Thomas Horsley of York. This is another in a series of Horsley guns he has had recently. I narrowly missed one in the last sale, leaving a bid, which lost out to one in the room by £50. It is always better to be in the room!

I was pleased to see a good turnout of British auctioneers at the BSS. Bonhams, Holt’s and Southams all had stands. It proved a good networking opportunity. Patrick Hawes had a second wave of Winchesters ready for the next sale. Bonhams sold a very impressive number of these, from a single collection, in December. I had no idea there were more, but more there are. Plenty more. 

Hopefully, the weather will improve from now onwards and I’ll be able to take a break from spending every penny on heating oil and get back into the game. Winter is ending.

Spring Auctions and a Change of Venue.

The most immediately relevant news for the Spring is that Holt’s have abandoned their foray into Blackheath, in favour of Kensington. A more central venue is probably sensible. Footfall appears to have dropped, though sales have carried on without too much of a noticeable blip.. 

Nick Holt has decided to move from the, oddly lit, Blackheath venue to new premises in Kensington.

On-line bidding goes from strength to strength, which is probably no surprise. Computers and internet based activity are becoming the norm for all kinds of activities. The twenty year-old without any cash when Holt’s began internet bidding services in 2003 is now probably a successful city boy of thirty-five, to whom the concept of on-line life is the norm rather than the novelty it was to his age equivalent back then.

Holt’s sold £150,000 worth of kit on-line in December, with the single biggest figure being £28,000, proving a great deal of confidence in the system and showing how much of this business ifs getting done by on-line viewing, decision making and bidding.

The Blackheath venue Holt’s have used for a year, as with all choices, was a compromise. In its favour was great parking, plenty of space, good catering facilities and, for some, it was closer. To its detriment we have to account for the tricky cross-town journey, negotiating London’s increasingly horrible traffic. While it was less than ten miles from the old Hammersmith venue, the journey, for me, increased from three hours, to five. 

The new venue will have no parking, which is a problem for people wanting to bring, or leave with, firearms but Kensington should attract more viewers and help generate that all-important atmosphere of excitement and momentum that was, for so long, a feature of Holt’s rise to prominence. The new venue is; The Army Reserve Centre, Adam & Eve Mews, Kensington, W8 6TN. The next auction is on March 19th.

Viewing and selling days have moved, so those used to a routine of Thursday auctions and early mid-week viewing will need to put the current dates in their diary. Auctions are now to be held on Tuesdays, with viewing on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It will be interesting to see how many people use the weekend viewing as a day out; it could prove to be a very good move, opening the venue up when most people have a day off work. Please note that I.D will be required to attend and registration in advance can be arranged with Holt’s via their website.

Holt’s have announced their dates for later in the year as: 18th June, 19th September and 12th December. In December, there was a departure from the norm in that the Sealed Bids sale items were not taken to London for viewing. This was disappointing for those like me, who made the trip to London to look through everything but does not seem to have hurt sales, as the final tally showed that £250,000 went through the till.. 

Overall sales figures for the period topped a million pounds. As Brexit uncertainty looms, it is comforting to note that Holt’s sold 56% of lots to UK buyers, obviating the worry over exports and taxes. The 21% of buyers based in Europe will need some clarity as to what will happen regarding sales by the time we get to the next one, in June. Right now, it is anyone’s guess.

Another development which has been progressing quietly behind the scenes is the collaboration between Holt’s and gunmaker J-P Daeschler. Jean-Pierre is based in Kent and has, in recent sales , been attendant at Holt’s viewing days and on-hand to advise buyers about the guns and any work required to bring them up to speed. 

J-P Daeschler (left) has bought John Dickson & Son.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that Holt’s are holding a valuation day at the premises of Jon Dickson & Son, in Scotland this month. Well, the two observations are not unrelated. J-P Daeschler is the proud new owner of John Dickson & Son, has retained the Scottish workshops and intends to continue production from there, with the famous ‘round action’ leading the way but other models from the firm, as well as the MacNaughton and Daniel Fraser names, which are part of Dickson’s, following in due course.

A change of ownership often gives a boost to the brand value of a company. We have seen this with Rigby over recent years (note the .470 N.E that sold at Holt’s last time for £28,000). Dickson is already a hugely collectable name and has a keen following. Will we now see its stock rise higher still? J-P is a real enthusiast for the brand and it is in good hands. I’m expecting to see interesting developments trickle out steadily from now on. 

I wonder if there will be a growth in interest in the guns of Frederick Beesley, now that the name has a London address once more. LGS have brought Beesley to King’s Road, Chelsea. Their new guns are built by Perugini & Visini but the increased profile and plans to invest in the brand, may see interest rise in the old guns too. There is a cased pair of 12-bore, Beesley side-locks and a cartridge magazine by Beesley in the catalogue so, if you want to be early to the party, get involved.

Bonhams have announced 23rd May as their first sale of 2019 and another on November 28th wraps up the year.  Their December sale last year was really quite impressive and targeting two dates per annum and striving to put on a real show is a good move, making each event more memorable and exciting. 

I picked up a nice 20-bore Watson Bros side-lock, last time, for a client, which is now undergoing a bit of restoration. The Max Gau Winchester collection they sold was a good performer, with one Model 1866 netting £27,000. Overall, the auction achieved 88% sold by lot, which is impressive.

Gavin Gardiner is opening 2019 with a sale on May 1st, in London and Southam’s have 14th March listed for their spring sale. Keep an eye on provincial auctions too, with their occasional gems, though it can be expensive travelling up and down the country after one or two guns, only to be unsuccessful four times out of five. Auctions can be frustrating but the occasional rewards are what keep us coming back for more.

Foreign Interlopers

An interesting letter appeared on my desk recently. It was from a European auction house and it was asking for consignments from the UK. The auction house was Springer in Vienna and they clearly smell an opportunity.

In a very straightforward manner, Springer, styling themselves as ‘Purveyor to the imperial court of Austria, Vienna, since 1836’, spelt out their reasoning for targeting the UK market: Brexit and the likely fallout to follow. “Sell your back stock and protect yourself from a trade slump in weapons after Brexit” they suggest, adding; “With Brexit fast approaching, now is the time to consider what measures you can take to protect and insulate your business. Exports, as well as sales of weapons, is (sic) expected to become much more difficult following the separation”.

Is this opportunism, exploiting the effects of what one faction have always called ‘Project Fear’? Perhaps. Does the Springer letter tap into some general perception that there is a degree of pessimism and anxiety around the gun trade in the UK, in the face of annexation from the European trading block? Maybe.

Sales at Holt’s were slightly down in December.

What is apparent is that Springer’s emergence as a bigger player on the auction scene, targeting British consigners, over the last three years would have seemed very unlikely five years ago. Has the spectre of Brexit made the British auctioneers look vulnerable? Springer have copied Holt’s model quite closely. They offer a live auction, and a silent auction for their lower value goods. 

They claim to be Europe’s largest auction house for firearms, selling around two thousand guns per quarter and tout their unrivalled access to the American and European markets. However, British auctioneers have been selling into Russia and the States for years and most seem to have well-oiled systems to facilitate the transfer of bought and sold lots to anywhere in the world. However, one cannot easily shrug off the aggressive targeting of the British market by overseas firms. 

One should remember that Rock Island (based in the US) now has Howard Dixon, once of Holt’s, and a former head of sporting guns at Christies, representing them in the UK and Europe. It once looked like Holt’s Bonham’s and Gavin Gardiner had the bulk of the UK market sewn-up. They were also very successful in bringing goods into London for worldwide sale. With Brexit, is London as the hub of sporting gun sales in Europe under threat, as is its status as the hub of financial services?

It seems a very long time ago that I attended an evening event at Purdey’s shop in South Audley Street and Richard Purdey, who I both like and respect, replied, to some comment, that we should all go out and vote UKIP. 

I recall being quite shocked: the thought ‘What that bunch of nutters?” certainly crossed my mind. I certainly didn’t take UKIP seriously then and thought that no sensible person did either. They were a fringe group of single issue extremists with their heads in an imaginary past. I had no idea that a few years later they would have been so successful in achieving their aims and the UK would be facing such an uncertain and self-inflicted economic future as a result. But here we are. The vultures are circling.

Any historian of the gun trade in this country will have seen enough case studies of the demise of many great gun-making firms in the years following the Second World War to recognise that economic isolation and uncertainty can decimate the ranks in short order. The last thirty years have been quite kind, by comparison.

Old firms, like Watson Bros, resurrected and once-again independent, established gun makers, like Purdey and Holland & Holland, pushing their image and expanding as ‘lifestyle brands’, new start-ups, like Boxall & Edmiston and Longthorne flourishing. Auctioneers, especially Holt’s, proving that London was the centre of the gun-collecting world and expanding their reach through a network of overseas agents. 

However, the signs of stress are already apparent. Some major players are shedding staff on the gun side of business and focussing more on clothing, London auctions are facing competition from Europe and America, Boxall & Edmiston have closed their doors in the face of diminishing orders and noise from around the trade suggests sales are slow and confidence low. 

What is selling? Turkish guns that cost less than £500. The signs don’t look good to me. However, auctioneers report that sales of mid-range guns are still taking place, all-be-it at lower prices than was the case a few years ago. If priced right, everything finds its market. In this respect, the auctioneers have a better time of it as they don’t own the inventory, they just take a percentage of whatever it sells for. Fluidity is the name of the game.

European auction houses smell an opportunity to take business from the UK after Brexit.

Holt’s figures for December were down on their average, slightly. The percentage of unsold lots was a little higher. As always, the good stuff sold well, the tired, or ordinary, guns proved harder work and prices are down on what they were three or four years ago across the board. Holts still sell most of their guns to UK buyers, which makes things better from the border issue – you don’t have to cross borders when you ship to a British buyer from Norfolk. 

Bringing consignments in from Europe could be more tricky post-Brexit but only 25% of Holt’s kit comes from overseas. A lot of the European rifles and guns that come to London from Europe, for sale, are sold back to European buyers. That negates the effects of VAT imposed on imported goods sold in the UK.

Of course, there are counter-punchers bucking trends in the trade. Rigby and Westley Richards both look confident and ambitious. The British Game Alliance is pushing the image of game meat as a mainstream, healthy alternative, the spectre of a lead ban seems to have receded, for now. I truly hope that the trade withstands the present, and coming, economic uncertainty relatively unscathed.

The pro-Brexit bulls will have us believe that everything will be rosy whatever happens, but they have been changing their story daily, as the reality of an exit from Europe looks ever more remote from the one they promised back in the early days of campaigning. We may be looking at a no-deal, suck-it-and-see strategy, if one can call that a strategy. Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems to be expecting a windfall from the anticipated storm that Brexit will unleash on the UK economy. I remember the 1970s and early ‘80s. I certainly hope we are not heading back in that direction.

Chatting with one of London’s prominent auctioneers this week suggested that much of what I have been picking up is perhaps overly pessimistic. “I’m hearing what I heard twenty years ago” he told me – ‘Good stuff is hard to find”. There are still buyers in the thirty-to-fifty age bracket asking for classic guns like Purdey’s or Dickson round-actions and they have a sensible budget. What we may be missing in the younger generation is an interest in ‘wierdo’ patents. That seems confined to the older collectors but the aspirational thirtysomething with some cash to spend does still want a pair of Purdeys, much as did my generation a quarter of a century ago.

I, like most people in the country, am tired of thinking and writing about Brexit. We are being popularly referred to as ‘BOB’; for ‘bored of Brexit’. Yet, until we have some certainty, the subject dominates daily life for Bobs and everyone else with a business to run, especially one that crosses borders. 

So, Happy 2019 to everyone. May it be prosperous and pleasant. I’m sure the fact that this year is the centennial of the worldwide influenza epidemic that wiped out more people than World War One and the Black Death combined is merely coincidental.